Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Shelley on Humanity

            The theory of Humanity is exposed throughout Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Frankenstein, his monster, and his new friend Walton both demonstrate the core of humanity, and at times the lack thereof.

A main characteristic of humanity is the desire for companionship. Walton and the nameless monster mirror the need for a companion in their lives. First Walton writes to his sister, “But I have one want which I have never yet been able to satisfy, and the absence of the object which I now feel as a most severe evil, I have no friend, Margaret.” (Chapter 2, pg. 8). Walton goes on to illuminate his need of the company of a man who can sympathize with both his intelligent mind and his romantic ideas or affections. Until this point Walton has yet to find somebody that he can call his equal. This point troubles him leaving him feeling along until Frankenstein is discovered and brought on board their ship resolving this issue. This resembles the monster’s struggles remarkably. Once created, the monster finds himself alone and craving a family or companion of his own.  Watching the family of cottagers gives the monster much peace and happiness, but his craving for a companion could not be satiated from a distance. Upon the cataclysmic event of revealing himself to his beloved family, the monster realizes that his only hope for a true companion is the creation of a person made the same as himself. The monster’s want for a being that appears like him is remarkably similar to Walton’s need for a man with a mind like his own. It could be argued that Frankenstein’s monster as equally human in this respect.

Family is another characteristic of humanity. We are drawn to our families both in times of happiness or sorrow. Frankenstein’s upbringing was ideal. Frankenstein says, “We felt that [our parents] were not the tyrants to rule our lot according to the caprice, but the agents and creators of all the many delights which we enjoyed.”(Chapter 2, page 27).

With this statement in mind, it is hard to believe that a man who experienced such a wonderful childhood would become a man who would give none of this to his own creation. Again and again the monster refers to Frankenstein as his creator, but this seems to be more than just the scientific meaning of creation. Frankenstein is in many ways the monster’s father; responsible for the monster’s actions, care, and upbringing. Returning to my initial statements then, it is not surprising that after the monster’s denial into the family he covets that he should return to Frankenstein to relieve him of unhappiness.  This further institutes the idea that the monster is equally as human as Frankenstein and Walton. His actions thus far in the novel have proven to follow the typical human reactions.

It is also important to examine the points where the characters showed the malice of humanity. It is easy to dismiss the murder of the young boy and the sentencing of the innocent girl to the fact that the monster was just that; a monster. However, these are acts of passion. “’Urged by this impulse, I seized on the boy as he passed and drew him towards me… he placed his hands before his eyes and uttered a shrill scream…’” (Chapter 16, page 126) says the monster. Upon learning of the relation between the child and his enemy, Frankenstein, the monster kills because of a strong hate and wish to cause his creator as much misery as the monster has endured.

The monster is not the only character to stray from humanity because of passion. First, his passion for knowledge pulls him away from his family (part of humanity) and then plunges him into the depths of obsession and despair. Finally, when the monster is created, a mixture of cowardice and shame cause Frankenstein to flee. By abandoning his creation, Frankenstein not only abandons his responsibility to give his creation a family or companionship, and begins denying these responsibilities outright later in the story. These however, all return to the underlying causes of cowardice and shame from initially creating this monster.

 Straying from the ideals of humanity is part of being human. Having the passions that cause us to hurt, abstain from our duties, and become obsessed make us true humans. The theory here is that yes, there are many qualities that can define humanity; however it’s equally the parts of us that strain our ideals that make everyone human.

Shelley, Mary. Frankenstein. Mumbai: Wilco Publishing House, 2002. Print.


  1. Interesting post. I think you should perhaps focus more on the parallels between the monster, Dr. Frankenstein, and Robert Walton. Some are exclusive to a pair within the three. For example, both the monster and Walton have a great desire to meet someone of their same mind, yet Frankenstein seems not to share this urge (or at least it is shadowed by his crippling paranoia/depression/guilt.) Some parallels encompass all three, such as their isolation due to their pursuits (knowledge/progress). If you plan to focus on humanity, (I'd maybe prefer 'humanness') you must make it clear that, as the monster is not human in any general sense of the definition, he must say some pretty interesting things about what it is to be human (turning to Wilson, who believes that many human characteristics are not exclusively human: is this true for species 'above' us as well?).

    Also, you might benefit from focusing on a route into exploring humanity, which is a pretty broad concept. Which aspects (you mentioned companionship, family, and passion) of humanity is Shelly conveying/challenging/satirizing and how? How does the presence of Frankenstein, whom is arguably not human, but shares many aspects of humanity with real human characters in the text, distort (if he does) the presentation of humanity in the work?

  2. I have two primary comments here, which go in very different directions.

    First, while Dean is correct in what I interpret as his call for a little more focus, I think your use of the text is fairly strong. This is a novel full of interesting parallelism, and while neither the Victor-monster or Walton-monster parallels are complete/exhausted, as Dean recognizes, they are both going in an interesting direction: the quest of Walton and the monster for companionship is particularly interesting (although you don't do anything really with the fact that one succeeds in his quest, at least sort of, and one unambiguously fails - it seems relevant to your argument.

    What I liked less was that you made no attempt at a coherent definition of human nature. Instead, you worked as you went, mentioning things which might be common to human nature, but are hardly exclusive to it.

    For instance, the desire for companionship and the importance of family characterize many other species apart from us - Chimpanzees and ducks (!) among them. A definition of human nature which says nothing about the differences between humans and other species, and does nothing to acknowledge that you're drawing on shared characteristics, is flawed even if you show some skill in your use of the text.